The short version is that the first of our ewes went into labor yesterday and after several hours and some help from our shepherd friend and the vet, we still lost both the lamb and the mama sheep. Everyone agreed that the baby was just too big and there was no way things could have ended any other way, but it still sucks. Below is a much more detailed account of how the whole disaster went down, but please be warned it gets very graphics as things go very badly. You may not want to read this post. I’m only writing it so that someday, when we’ve got this whole animal husbandry thing down, I’ll remember just how far we’ve come and be humbled by just how difficult it can be.
Thursday evening we had dinner guests. As Will was giving the requisite farm tour, everyone noticed that one of the ewes appeared to be in early labor. Her backside was no longer pale pink but more of a watermelon color, and everything appeared swollen. When she lay down, she appeared to be contracting and a reddish protrusion would emerge from her vagina, only to get sucked right back in whenever she stood up. We checked on her a few times that night but nothing changed so we slept with the windows open, assuming we’d have a lamb come morning.
Friday morning and there was no lamb. She was up eating with the rest of our little flock, so I assumed our poor gal was having the sheep equivalent of laboring over several days only to have the contractions disappear right before you’re ready to head to the hospital. I spent the day at work googling for images of sheep births.
By the time we got home that evening it was 8 PM. I checked on her and saw that her bag of water was showing and her backside looked really swollen, as if her vagina was a half deflated dodge ball. Fantastic! From everything I’d read, once that water balloon-like sac popped, we’d have a lamb in an hour (or need to call the vet). I got Alston ready for bed and Will gathered up flashlights and other supplies. By 8:30 we were in the yard but that bag was still just hanging there, and she didn’t appear to be laboring – none of the typical pacing or laying down and then getting back up, or even separating herself from the flock. She was hanging with her sisters, eating leaves off trees. Will called the vet and the shepherd from who we purchased our five border cheviots and “borrowed” a ram, and both agreed that this had gone on too long and we needed to get that baby out. The vet gave the following advice – get at least one front leg (ideally both) and the head and pull it out. If you don’t get the head, the baby will get stuck. And use lots of lube.
Crap. There went any delusions of a smooth introduction to sheep birth. I was going to have the break out the vet gloves that go all the way up to my shoulders and try and pull out our first lamb.
Our first task was to find a way to catch our girl. Will and I didn’t yet have our teamwork on, so to speak, so much of this time was spent bickering about how to go about trapping the flock and then uncoordinated chasing. Mind you, it is now pitch black outside. Only after a half hour of wasted effort did we regroup and finally chase the sheep into the corner of the yard, so we could move the electric fencing and trap them in a much smaller space. All I kept thinking was that I couldn’t imagine running at full speed while in labor. So much of the night I compared sheep labor to human labor, okay, to my labor, which has got to be a horrible analogy, but it’s all I had.
Next, Will used a spare piece of hog wire fencing to construct and make-shift chute, the idea being we’d need to get them in a really tight space for Will to grab her, and then I could let the others out and we’d have the world’s worst birthing center. I was sent to grab the spare metal fence post we use to keep the chicken coop door propped open by day, but when I tried to hand it to Will, I couldn’t quite reach and I fell on the electric fencing. I strongly recommend one not fall into electrified fence netting, let alone while holding a metal rod. I temporarily lost the use of my legs and fell on my knee completely wrong, but at least I managed to roll off the fencing away from the death shocks. I have never been graceful, but this may have a been a low point, even for me, as I’m laying on the ground clutching my knee while Will is trying to hold up 12 feet of fencing and get on with the show. He was very patient to give me the three minutes I needed to stand up again. That or he’s been married to me too long to know that yelling only makes me argumentative. There is a special place in heaven for this man.
I limp back over to the sheep and walk them into the chute, which Will promptly closes. I hold the fencing shut while he catches mama and once he has her secured on the ground, I let the other sheep out and use the post to close off the pen.
Now it’s go time. I pull on my shoulder length gloves, lube up my hands and arms and slowly push my hand into the sheep. I can’t find the lamb at all until I’m in up to my wrist, and then I find a leg. When I grab it, it pulls back and I’m elated that the baby is still alive. I think I feel what may be a head, but I honestly have no idea, and I can’t get a decent grip on anything. I pull my hand out to reassess and my glove is covered in blood, so I’m now in a panic and we call the vet and the shepherd. The shepherd is on her way but 45 minutes out and the vet says to call her back if the shepherd doesn’t succeed, but emphasizes that mama won’t make it if we can’t get the baby out.
Will and I decide to give it another go. This time, when I go in it feels like her insides have turned to ribbons. It was probably umbilical cord but it does not feel as clean in there as it did before. I try going in with both hands to hunt for the head but the birth canal is too tight for me to separate my hands from prayer position, so it’s back to one hand. I’m in up to my elbow before I find a foot, which I pull out. Then I fish out the other foot, but I can’t find the head. I can’t even find the body, or distinguish the lamb’s body from the mother’s body. I try pulling on both legs with all of my might, to see if that would move the lamb closer to the birth canal but nothing budges. The legs are no longer moving. At this point I’ve been in the sheep for what feels like a half hour but was probably 10 minutes.
We wait for the shepherd. Mama starts to vomit, she’s probably in shock at this point.
The shepherd and her husband arrive and look at the amount of blood and the backside of the sheep and say that things look bad. Mama’s vagina was likely prolapsed. Will continued to hold the sheep while the shepherd went in after the lamb. She could find the two legs but couldn’t find a head. I called the vet and told her we needed her. The shepherd kept trying to locate the head but she just couldn’t find it so after 15 minutes we all sat and waited for the vet. The shepherd said she’d never seen a birth gone so badly, and her flock had 27 lambs just this year.
The vet arrived and confirmed that mama’s vagina was prolapsed. After about ten minutes she was able to find the head, and it took all of her force to pull it through the birth canal. As we expected, the lamb was dead. Once she had the head and one foot out, she started to pull, using her full body to try and dislodge the lamb but it didn’t budge. With the head out, there was no room in the birth canal for her hand to fit to try and pull out the other leg. She tied straps around the leg and tried to pull more. The shepherd’s husband tried to pull, while Will counter pulled the sheep. Nothing. The baby was just too big.
The vet said we had two options. A c-section or cutting off the lamb’s head to make room for the body to come out. We said whatever mama was most likely to survive, and so the lamb was decapitated. She pushed the body back into the birth canal, repositioned the lamb and pulled it out after ten more minutes of straps and three people tugging. To say it was gruesome does not come close to the suffering endured by this poor ewe, who was no longer struggling.
The vet pulled out the uterus to inspect the damage and it was horribly torn. The intestines were visible and it was clear to everyone that no amount of stitches could repair her. We agreed to put her down and the vet got a syringe. The ewe’s blood pressure was so weak it took several attempts to find a vein, but finally her suffering was over.
It was the worst birth any of us had witnessed, and only an unfortunate coincidence that it was our first. The lamb was simply too big for its mother, made worse by her being a first time mama not knowing how to labor and the complications and swelling related to the prolapsed vagina. Had we call the vet the moment we got home, it’s likely the outcome would have been the same, only with mercifully few hours of suffering. At this point it was midnight. Everyone departed from the farm and Will went to dig a grave while I showered off all the blood.
How do I feel? Sad, of course. Stupid for not realizing that the state of her backside wasn’t normal and not calling for help immediately. But also a little proud that we tried as hard as we did, that we didn’t hesitate to do what we needed to do trying save that lamb, even though we ultimately failed. I have never seen an animal give birth, myself included (Alston was an emergency c-section, his head was also too big), and there I was elbow deep in my ewe trying my damnedest. I can only imagine how exhausted Will was, holding that sheep for what amounted to hours, but he never complained or tagged someone else in. For all the fumbling while catching that ewe, once we got down to the business of assisting her labor we stayed calm and did everything we were told. After seeing both a seasoned shepherd and a livestock vet struggle and fail to deliver the lamb, at least I can take comfort knowing that both the mother and child’s deaths were not due to rookie mistakes. It’s not much solace, but that and sheer exhaustion allowed me to sleep that night.